The battle for government contracts

Liza Dresner is Director of the charity Resources for Autism, which operates in London and Birmingham. Resources for Autism provides practical services for children and adults with an autistic spectrum condition and for their families and carers. In this blog, she writes about her experiences of government commissioning. 

The changes to the funding landscape over the past few years have been huge—and now we are seeing massive changes in the way our services are commissioned. As a medium-sized charity of 15 years providing practical services, we have a great deal of experience in applying for and often being successful in gaining funding. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult. As we get closer to the budget many chief executives, like me, will have been driven to exhaustion trying to get their bids completed.

Tendering is like going into battle. Everything else has to be put on hold as I complete PPQs followed by pages upon pages of questions, many of which repeat, and some of which are not relevant. Then there may be the version to be assessed by a panel of young people and perhaps the version in which no costs must be mentioned. This can take days. Most ask for around 10 different policies and procedures to be provided, and if this is a hard copy version then we have to produce 3 copies of everything. They can weigh in at a couple of kilos when complete.

I have been told on two separate occasions that we had successfully won a tender only to wait weeks for formal contracts—and on reading these discovered that we have only been awarded half of the tender but no one thought to tell us. Another time it was only when we challenged a local authority on their call that our PPQ was incorrect that they rechecked and confirmed it was their mistake.

Some local authorities want to sit in on our recruitment interviews, complicating the logistics. Do they do so with companies who build their roads or cut their trees?

Recently we are seeing a new phenomenon of huge tender lots being advertised which can only be bid for as a whole package. These cannot be applied to by specialist agencies such as us as we only offer services for those with a diagnosis of autism.  Small but beautiful local organisations providing just one little bit of something like disability yoga are finding they are too small to get involved. The aim here is to have a glorious partnership but that in itself is fraught with problems. Partnerships take huge amounts of time to create and to sustain. There has to be a legal entity of some kind as money is involved. Where do our trustees sit within a new framework, and what happens if it all falls apart through the fault of another of the partners? There are some vast private companies that can provide these packages alone, but surely if the current A4e debacle or the tragedy that was Winterbourne View tells us anything, it is that profit does not sit comfortably in our world.

Then there is the reporting… I have no problem at all with being asked to evidence what we do and am positively delighted if commissioners ask to visit and see what we do. But every quarter I am asked to send in forms. Not the same forms and not forms that want the same information. Some want age, gender, ethnicity of each attendee on everything. Some want ages grouped 5 – 12 perhaps, while others want them grouped 5 – 8, 8- 12 and I even have one that wants those aged 8-9,9-10,10-11,11-12 etc as well as their dates of birth! Others want to know why a child didn’t turn up to a particular session. There is an endless range of combinations and ways of presenting the same material. None of this tells them anything about how good the service is or if the young person had a great time with us or the family valued the break.

Is it worth it you may ask? Certainly, if successful, it can mean some security for us and for those we seek to serve.  To those who have it right like Birmingham City and the London Borough of Haringey who have been the most helpful commissioners I have worked with, I would like to send flowers. There are many who are somewhere in the middle and are trying to get it right. But the worst offenders will end up with poor quality services reflecting poor quality, bureaucratic commissioning—and it is the people who need and use these services who will suffer.

NPC recently carried out a survey of how changes to government commissioning are affecting charities, supported by Zurich. We’ll be publishing the results of the survey later this year. This is the first in a series of blogs looking at commissioning from the perspective of those working on the front line.